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NDSU Extension Service Centennial (2014)

This article is from the 2013-2015 North Dakota Blue Book, published by the N.D. Secretary of State, 600 East Boulevard Ave., Dept. 108, Bismarck, ND  58505-0500.

The NDSU Extension Service: Creation and Early Years

2014 will be the centennial of an institution that has improved the lives of thousands of North Dakotans, while also strengthening the state’s agriculture.

The North Dakota State University Extension Service was created on July 1, 1914, just two months after President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act, establishing and funding the Cooperative Extension System in conjunction with land-grant universities. The purpose of the act was stated: “Cooperative agricultural extension work shall consist of the development of practical applications of research knowledge and giving of instruction and practical demonstrations of existing or improved practices or technologies in agriculture, uses of solar energy with respect to agriculture, home economics, and rural energy, and subjects relating thereto. . . and imparting information on said subjects through demonstrations, publications, and otherwise.”

Today, the NDSU Extension Services describes its purpose this way: “to create learning partnerships that help adults and youth enhance their lives and communities.”

Through its statewide network of county offices, regional Research Extension Centers, and headquarters in Fargo, the NDSU Extension Service reaches out to farmers and ranchers with an array of educational programs and services, including:

  • Information on new crop varieties, including an increasing number of specialty crops;
  • Livestock production research;
  • Livestock and crop prices;
  • Insect and weed management recommendations;
  • Crop disease forecasts;
  • Beef quality assurance efforts.

True to the purpose of the Smith-Lever Act, the North Dakota Extension Service offers informal education to all North Dakota residents. Examples include:

  • Providing families with information on nutrition, home and lawn maintenance, gardening, financial planning, and parenting skills.
  • Administering the statewide 4-H program that involves more than 23,000 young people in educational, career-development, and other programs to make them better citizens.
  • Stimulating economic and personal growth through the Center for Community Vitality, Rural Leadership North Dakota, and local programs.
  • Responding to disasters with information and assistance on dealing with floods and other severe weather.
  • Advising families on safety issues: foodborne illnesses, farm and ranch security, and proper equipment use.
  • Protecting the environment by providing assistance and information on animal waste management, drainage, water quality, and proper use of agricultural chemicals.
  • Helping low-income families to make better financial decisions.
  • Providing educational and technical help to North Dakota communities impacted by oil development.
  • Providing information and help to families at risk for health issues, including food insecurity, diabetes, obesity, and eye disease.

The Extension Service’s history has sometimes been stormy.

When the Smith-Lever Act went into effect in 1914, North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC) in Fargo was already positioned to take on the new responsibilities. The school had been offering extension work almost from its founding in 1889 through farmer institutes, bulletins and demonstration trains. In 1905, the first Better Farming Clubs were established in North Dakota, and five years later, the first Boys’ and Girls’ Club Institute was held in Fargo.

In 1911, the Better Farming Association (BFA) was chartered. Almost entirely funded by business, banking, and railroad interests, the BFA placed agents in counties across the state. Trained in agriculture, these agents, traveling mostly in Model T Ford Torpedo roadsters and motorcycles, brought information about the latest farming techniques and production practices to the scattered farms. They also organized meetings and farmer clubs where farmers would see demonstrations and share information with each other.

The North Dakota Legislature approved a law in 1913 to enable 20 percent of a county’s voters to petition for a vote to underwrite a county agent. The BFA hired its first home agent, Mildred Vietsch, to demonstrate and promote “the installation of modern devices which render the farm home more livable” and to help homemakers in “the elimination of drudgery without material increase in cost.”

When NDAC took over the extension work in 1914, the BFA agents became NDAC employees, and the BFA director, Thomas Cooper, was appointed the first director of the Cooperative Extension Service. The following year, the Legislature approved $20,000 for the statewide Cooperative Extension program. In 1916, each county with an agent became eligible for up to $1,200 in federal Smith-Lever Act funds.

The First World War was an opportunity for the new Extension Service to demonstrate its value. The federal government, anxious to increase food production and conserve food, provided funds to hire eleven “emergency agents” in North Dakota. One of the most important tasks for these agents was the recruitment of farm labor for the harvests. Women and children were recruited for shocking grain, while the heavier work of harvesting and threshing was handled by men who were brought from larger and more distant cities. The effort was largely successful. In 1917, one agent recruited more than 600 workers.

The home economics program of Extension also expanded. The first recorded homemakers club in the state, the Get-Together Club in Adams County, was founded in 1918. Twelve years later, there were 300 such clubs throughout North Dakota.

But opposition to Extension was growing. Special interest groups, notably the North Dakota Taxpayers’ Association and the Farm Holiday Association, campaigned against the Extension Service in county elections. In the 1922 and 1924 elections, seven counties voted out their Extension offices. In 1932, another nine counties followed suit. Only twenty-one of the state’s fifty-three counties had Extension agents in 1933.

In the meantime, the Extension Service was in the forefront of relief efforts, obtaining livestock feed loans and crop seed loans for beleaguered farmers and ranchers, and coordinating livestock and shipments. This work would not only benefit producers; it may have saved the Extension Service itself. As Stanley Bale noted in Hired Hands and Volunteers, “Extension’s ability to organize for and to administer emergency situations and programs has been its ‘ace card.’ Without its many emergency assignments, Extension may not have been able to sustain local support long enough to establish firm roots.”

The turnaround began in 1936, ironically one of the worst years in North Dakota agriculture. Thanks to a growing realization of the need for Extension and to strong grassroots campaigning, Extension was established in twenty-seven additional counties, bringing the total to forty-eight.

The following year saw another challenge when Gov. William Langer, long an Extension foe, fired a number of NDAC officials, including the Extension Director, H.L. Walster. However, in 1938, North Dakota voters created the Board of Higher Education, which reinstated the fired university officials.

Almost a quarter century after its founding, the Extension Service was fully established. Although it would have its ups and downs in the future, including financing difficulties and a major reorganization in the 1990s, it had become a fixture with widespread support.

The NDSU Extension Service Today

Today, the NDSU Extension Service has the equivalent of more than 250 full-time employees and a $27 million annual budget. Funding continues to come from federal, state, and county governments, grants, and partnerships. Operating under the guidance of the State Board for Agricultural Research and Education (SBARE), the NDSU Extension Service carries out its mission of creating learning partnerships that help adults and youth enhance their lives and communities through ten programming areas:

  • Community, Economic Development and Leadership
  • Livestock Management
  • Farm Business Management
  • Crop Management
  • Natural Resource Management
  • Family Economics
  • 4-H Youth Development
  • Human Development and Family Science
  • Nutrition, Food Safety and Health
  • Horticulture and Forestry

Today’s NDSU Extension Service continues to help farmers and ranchers increase their profitability, but it does so much more, according to Director Chris Boerboom. Extension still provides information, but also facilitates discussions and carries out education that helps people make decisions that transform their lives and communities.

The NDSU Extension Service uses the latest research and a variety of teaching methods and technologies to help create that transformation. The Extension Service impacts the State in a variety of ways, including:

Enabling North Dakota growers to efficiently produce more than $6 billion worth of crops a year.

New Extension nitrogen fertility recommendations for wheat have provided better results, according to 98 percent of surveyed consultants and agricultural industry representatives. Education on wheat stem sawfly saved wheat growers an estimated $30 million in insecticide costs in 2011. More than 1,500 people were educated on subsurface drainage systems to address soil salinity and excess water. Attendees of soybean meetings estimated $2 million in benefits from new production ideas.

Supporting a beef cattle industry that is poised for expansion.

Survey results on beef educational activities indicated 71 percent of producers who received information increased productivity or production; 39 percent decreased their labor needs; 56 percent increased calf value, and 62 percent increased net income.

Helping residents plan for, respond to, and recover from disaster.

The 2011 flooding impacted every river basin in North Dakota and displaced residents—12,000 in Minot alone. From proper sandbag dike construction to restoring flood-damaged structures to financial recovery, Extension fielded calls for assistance, created and posted fourteen flood clean-up videos, helped create a Disaster Recovery Log smartphone app, and co-developed and put to extensive use a Family Financial Toolkit.

Enhancing value-added agriculture, build community leadership, and address poverty of rural communities.

In 2011, educational programs in community economic development and leadership assisted communities in generating more than $2.5 million to support local issues and complete numerous business and community projects.

Providing educational assistance and technical support to rural western North Dakota communities impacted by oil development.

Extension’s Center for Community Vitality held four “Taking Charge of Your Community’s Future” forums in 2011 that educated 725 individuals on community planning and oil leases.

Providing educational assistance on parenting issues.

The Regional Parent Resource Center reached more than 5,800 parents in 2011, and, in its initial year, the Gearing Up for Kindergarten program assisted 750 families in improving their children’s entry into school.

Providing educational assistance to North Dakota families at risk for food insecurities, diabetes, obesity, eye disease and other health issues.

These programs have improved the nutrition of families, increase wise choices of money spent on food, increased physical activity, and improved safe food-handling practices. Every dollar invested in nutrition education in North Dakota reduces limited-resource families’ health care costs by $8.82.

Engaging more than 23,000 North Dakota youth annually in club, summer camp, and after-school activities.

Research shows that 4-H youth who gain the life skills and experiences provided through these programs are three times as likely to be active in their communities, nearly twice as likely to attend college, and are 56 percent more physically active.

Engaging adults and youth through Master Gardener, Junior Master Gardener (JMG), community gardens, and other educational programs.

In 2011, nearly 3,500 youth participated in JMG in 35 counties, and Master Gardeners volunteered more than1,500 hours in their communities, reaching 3,335 people.


Bale, Stanley W. Hired Hands and Volunteers: A History of the North Dakota State University Extension Service, Upsilon Chapter, Epsilon Sigma Phi, 1989. Available at www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/about-us/hired-hands-and-volunteers.
Moran, Gary. Extension to the 21st Century: A History of the North Dakota State University Extension Service 1985–2003. Available at www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/about-us/ext21stcentury.pdf/view.
Pates, Mikkel. “Extension Service still vital: Remains agent for change, farmers’ adviser,” The Forum, March 28, 1999.
Knutson, Jonathan. “Is Extension Still Relevant?” Agweek Magazine, Oct. 15, 2012.
North Dakota State University Extension website. www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension

Filed under: Smith-Lever Act
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